Comic Masters: A Shop that Loves You Back
CBSI! It's A.J. Diesel here coming to you with style and class. Last Friday, I continued my tour of comic book stores in Pennsylvania and found my way to an old haunt. Comic Masters, located inside of the Whitehall Mall (1978 Whitehall Mall, Whitehall, PA 18052) was a shop that I adventured to often with my father and brother years ago. Those days I was enjoying X-men: The Animated Series and though I loved comic books, I didn't appreciate them quite as much as I do now. With that said, many great memories from my former years bring me back to this store. I vividly remember walking into it like a kid in a candy store. It was big, colorful, and had some of the coolest superhero busts and action figures. It also boasted thousands of comic books. It would have took me days at the time to look through them all, and I'm glad to say that however many years later, some things haven't changed.
I walked into that shop and felt the same aura as I did years before. Nostalgia. It's old school, yet continually adapts with the times just enough to stay relevant. I was able to schedule my interview with the owner, Harry, in advance so that I would not be taking too much of his time or taking him away from potential customers. CBSI, I must say, it was a fantastic conversation, that I believe could have went on for another hour or so. Harry was incredibly welcoming and his passion for comic books and knowledge of the subject matter and hobby is just unparalleled. It was a real treat to talk with someone with such a storied shop (open for over 25 years), and I feel strongly in saying that I made another friend in this fine community.
The great part about Comic Masters is that the store *almost* matches the character of it's owner. It's a fantastic shop. The store is also extremely clean and not cluttered. You'll enjoy your own space as you get to look through comics. New books galore, all organized nicely on display racks. It has higher priced “wall books” all throughout the store, as well as an exceptional amount of trade paperbacks for the casual reader. There is an entire wall of new and old action figures and toys, as well as busts and statues. And I can't possibly forget the thousands of back issues that are listed alphabetically for your convenience. But with all of that said, my personal favorite staple of this shop is its ceiling. A fun depiction of superheroes are painted on the ceiling, which makes for a great atmosphere.
Like my previous interview, I always start it with one question. So without further adieu, my interview with Harry of Comic Masters!
Me: “So, I always ask, what is Comic Masters origin story?”
Harry: “I was always a fan, but I had no aspirations of getting into the business. So I took the normal education route. I got my degree in business, started working with AT&T, which is a really great company. I began moving up the latter and I went to headquarters. I was working 50/60 hours a week and I realized at that point, it wasn't going to be for me. So I went into my local comic book store, and I'd been going there for I can't tell you how long, but they didn't know my name, and I was treated very poorly one day. So when I left I told my wife that if I had my own store I would run it like this. She was very supportive. She told me that I knew a lot about business and a lot about the hobby, and told me I should make a go of it. I said ‘nah', but I went to work that day and had a really bad day at work. So I began investigating it, and back in 1994 was when I first opened the store.
Me: “Explain to me what has changed since you first opened in comparison to now?”
Harry: “Boy, I don't know if you have enough recording for this one. The biggest change that has taken place, is that as the industry has continued to shrink, there is not a younger demographic of teens and twenty year old's that were prevalent in the '90's. In the 1990's you had a core group of customers that were in their 40's and maybe even 50's, but you had a core demographic of a younger generation behind the main group. As the years have progressed, we've lost a large amount of 30 year old's, a great amount of 20 year old's, there are no teenagers, and there are surely no kids younger than that buying comics.”
Me: “Man, that is really tough to hear. What is the future of the comic book industry?”
Harry: You have different ecosystems. The collector market right now is pretty strong. So when you look at keys, speculation, and when you look at movies and TV, that have characters in that medium which got their start in comic books, there is still a lot of buzz and excitement. There is a lot of interest in comics that touch that aspect of both of those worlds. So from a collectors stand point, the market is strong, and sales on eBay and online I think can support that. But when you look at how the major publishers are struggling and positioning themselves going forward, in my opinion it's going to continue to shrink, and the future is uncertain for anybody other than Marvel, DC, and Image. But even for those companies there could be some attrition, so 5 to 10 years, I have no idea what it looks like.”
Me: You brought up Image Comics. So I have to ask you, do you think it's possible in today's age, for a small time publisher to make a rise like Image did in the 1990's and cement themselves with stories and characters that last?”
Harry: I don't want to say no. But if you ask me straight up, the chances of a smaller company making it to prominence on the shelves in comic book stores is slim. Maybe one offering that somehow catches on and creates some buzz has a chance. But the overall market continues to shrink. So as businesses tighten, the offerings that they put on the shelves tighten as well. There is always exceptions, but going forward I think it's going to be very difficult to shove your elbows around and make it onto a shelf.”
Me: “How do you continue to thrive after 25 years of business, and how do you continue to adapt to the changing market?”
Harry: “Well first of all you've got to love comic books. We try to position comic books as a readability product first and a collector product second because if you can foster a community of fans and readers it lends to more stability then if you were to purely base your business model on speculation. If you are not garnering customers for the love of the product and love of comics it's going to be more short lived then long term.”
Me: “Wolverine had his run in the 1990's and Deadpool had his run recently. Which character would you say is up for success?”
Harry: “I don't know if it's character based or movement/popularity based. You have The Umbrella Academy that came out, so that has a push. Doom Patrol, that's got a push. I believe when Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. and the next properties come out, those will be the items that folks now identify with. The bulk of readers are older readers. They are entrenched with what they like. So to see another Walking Dead…we wont see it coming.”
Me: “Do you feel like Hollywood and political pressures are being put into comic book culture?”
Harry: “Well the answer is yes, but that's also because Marvel steers the industry and Marvel is owned by Disney. I think it becomes difficult when you are trying to reflect society, where that becomes more of what you're trying to do as oppose to just telling great stories or putting out great comics. You're going to alienate your readership.”
Me: “You've been reading since the 1970's. What is your favorite character or series?”
Harry: “Spider-Man always has a special place in my heart. But as far as series goes, the best all-time series in comics is the run of Daredevil #168-#192 and then #226-#233 which is the Frank Miller Daredevil run.”
Me: “So your favorite writer is Frank Miller, what about your favorite artist?”
Harry: “I've got a few, but John Byrne would be up there. Jim Lee would be up there. And you know as far as an obscure, Gene Ha did a great run on a mini series called The Shade. I thought it was beautiful.”
Me: “Give us an issue that you would say jump on now and tell us why.”
Harry: “The first issue of Evil Ernie. It's the first appearance of Lady Death. As publishers start to pull back on how certain characters are drawn. I think that as times goes on, a lot of the comics from the past that feature some of those characters will come in to prominence.”
That's all for now! I want to thank Harry of Comic Masters for his time! I had a blast talking with you! I give Comic Masters 4 1/2 out of 5 road sodas. Thanks for reading, but now I've got some ghouls to hunt down and keys to be found.